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There are not many secrets in academy football these days, and there were not many leading clubs who did not know of the 15-year-old Billy Gilmour. Europe’s top sides were almost falling over each other in their attempts to sign a young Gilmour from Rangers a few years ago, with each of them taking note of this little midfielder who never seemed to lose the ball.
So obvious was Gilmour’s ability that Arsenal, as just one potential suitor, unleashed their full charm on the teenager and his family. The Gilmours were invited down from Ardrossan to watch an academy game, and were then asked to stay an extra day in order to meet Arsene Wenger himself. Wenger had personally requested an audience with Gilmour, hoping to convince him to choose Arsenal over Chelsea.
The sales pitch was compelling, as one might expect, and the Arsenal option was tempting in the extreme. But there are few academies in the world of football who can compete with Chelsea. At Cobham they do not offer a guarantee of playing in the first-team, but they do guarantee the best possible coaching and facilities. In the case of Gilmour, they also had Frank Lampard in the room when the family came to visit.
For Gilmour, the plan has always been to establish himself as a Premier League footballer. He is described as having an insatiable appetite for the game, simply wanting to play as much as he possibly can, and that drive was one of the main reasons for his loan move to Norwich City this summer. Norwich wanted class in the midfield, and Gilmour wanted more game-time than Chelsea, as European champions, could realistically offer this season.
It was Daniel Farke who convinced Gilmour to make the switch to Carrow Road, speaking to him convincingly of the club’s project and the 20 year-old’s role within it. Which makes it all the more strange that, after just a few games of this season, Gilmour found himself out of Farke’s team. In five consecutive matches, he did not even make it off the bench.
Supporters, pundits, team-mates and coaches: all were perplexed as to why Gilmour had been withdrawn from a Norwich side which appeared in desperate need of his technical ability. Former Scotland striker Ally McCoist captured the mood during commentary of his country’s victory over Denmark last week, when Gilmour was once again superb. “Must be some team, that Norwich,” quipped McCoist, tongue firmly in cheek.
The sacking of Farke, and the subsequent appointment of Dean Smith, already appears to have changed the course of Gilmour’s season. Smith had received glowing reviews from John McGinn, his former midfielder at Aston Villa, and did not hesitate in reinstating Gilmour to the starting lineup. In Smith’s first game, last week’s 2-1 victory over
Southampton, Gilmour played 86 minutes and assisted the winning goal for Grant Hanley.
“Billy will be vital to staying up,” said Smith. “When you have a player of that talent on loan, you want to get the best out of him. He just loves football and wants to be out there all the time. He was watching our Under-23s play on Friday night and he was all over the pitch against Southampton trying to drive the players on.”
Hanley, also a team-mate with Scotland, went further in his praise. “There is no doubt in my mind that Billy will play right at the very top,” he said, before hinting at some of the confusion within the Norwich squad at Gilmour’s exclusion under Farke. “He is probably the best player every day in training, and every time he plays he is probably the best player,” said Hanley.
Chelsea, naturally, are keeping a close eye on the situation. Gilmour spoke with Thomas Tuchel a few weeks before Farke’s dismissal, when thoughts were already beginning to turn to the January transfer window and other potential options.
Tuchel is understood to have been keen on the idea of Gilmour staying at Chelsea this summer, having started him in three of the final five Premier League games of last season and then watched him excel for Scotland at the European Championships, when he was man of the match against England. “Gilmour was always available,” said Gary Neville of
the midfielder’s performance at Wembley. “England don’t have that player.”
Gilmour’s parent club are well aware of his ability and work-rate. A few months after his arrival at the club in 2017, former defender David Luiz noticed the diminutive teenager on his own on the training pitches, working on his free-kicks long after everyone else had gone home. Luiz was so impressed that he is understood to have laced up and joined in. There are also stories of Gilmour staying behind on free weekends, working alone, instead of travelling home or abroad like many of his team-mates.
Such an attitude will help Gilmour’s cause but, clearly, it does not ensure that he will return to Chelsea as a first-team regular, even if he proves crucial in Norwich avoiding relegation. As is the case with Conor Gallagher, another Chelsea midfielder thriving on loan, it will require performances of the highest level for him to displace the likes of N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic at the heart of Tuchel’s team. For a 20 year-old, it is a tough mountain to climb.
Those are questions for another day, though. For now it is all about Norwich, and the impact Gilmour could have on their campaign. A new manager means a new start for all of their players, and Gilmour appears to be one of the early beneficiaries of the change in the dugout. Wolves await on Saturday, and Gilmour’s midfield prowess will be fundamental to Norwich’s hopes of climbing further up the table.